Ming Thein: Test Driving the New V-Lux 3

Malaysian photographer Ming Thein operates at opposite ends of the photographic spectrum; he is best known for his wristwatch macro photography, meticulously planned, lit and adjusted to perfection in a studio. In a decidedly schizophrenic personality twist, he also enjoys the challenging spontaneity of photojournalism and wildlife. Ming is a native of Kuala Lumpur and also contributes to Getty Images. Here he shares his impression of the new Leica V-Lux 3.

The majority of my work is done under extremely controlled conditions in a studio – watches don’t move, tripods guaranteed framing and flashes are consistent – perfection is not only possible, it is expected. However, sometimes you need a new challenge to keep your eye sharp and your technique honed. Where better than to challenge yourself to not only get a strong image, but also as technically good an image as possible in a place where you have no control whatsoever over your subject? My passion for birding and photojournalism was born — since 2005 I haven’t looked back.

Birding is challenging, because to do it well you need to understand something about the behavior of your subjects, have great patience, be instantly ready for action, and in the tropics, have an extremely high tolerance for mosquitoes. I recently went in to Leica Malaysia to collect a lens for my M9-P; I came back with an additional camera to take for a ride — the new V-Lux 3. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of bridge cameras due to their neither here-nor-there size; big enough that I might as well take a large sensor camera, but small enough that I’ll struggle if it gets a little dark. But hang on, what’s this? The V-Lux 3 has a 28-600mm lens, topping out at very reasonable f/5.2. The 600mm part is definitely interesting to me — I hadn’t been birding in some time, so off I went.

It’s a great relief for your back to have this degree of reach without having to lug along a super telephoto and associated support rig. I didn’t shoot handheld because the day was a little overcast and good support makes all the difference, but I did go light with just a monopod. The camera is responsive indeed; focus locked quickly and accurately every time, even at the 600mm end of the zoom (from which I never strayed through this outing). More importantly, it offers a great degree of control. Light colored birds against a dark background or reflective water are extremely challenging metering conditions. Problem solved: select spot metering and use the AE lock button. I shot at what I thought was the lowest safe shutter speed, taking into account the optical image stabilizer — I should have probably disregarded that and dropped the sensitivity a little more, because the stabilizer did an outstanding job. Sharp images at 1/30s and 600mm were possible, albeit with monopod support. Bursts of action were also no problem, as the camera has a 5.5 fps mode with AF tracking, even shooting RAW+JPEG for best quality; there are faster JPEG only modes.

After finding a decent selection of local species and donating several pints of blood to the mosquitoes, I called it a day when my card was at capacity — over 800 images. The battery indicator hadn’t changed and still showed a full charge.

I was immediately impressed by the quality of the RAW files — despite having a small 1/2.3″ sensor, the V-Lux 3 delivered clean images with good color and dynamic range. The lens is an outstanding performer, with good sharpness, almost no corner softness and no visible chromatic aberration, which is made all the more impressive by the range of its zoom. The quality of the images comes close to matching the professional DSLR rig I used just six or so years ago, which is a testament to how far technology has come. It isn’t a replacement for a full-size telephoto solution and DSLR, especially for fast moving action; however, I can definitely see a space in my bag for one of these to compliment my M system. It’s both a versatile, relatively lightweight backup, as well as a telephoto and super telephoto solution. And that doesn’t include the usefulness of the swivel LCD for framing unusual perspectives. Would it be better with a larger sensor? Undoubtedly, but the lens would also have to be larger to match, with a corresponding increase in weight and battery drain. I recommend it for people who like to travel light and budding wildlife enthusiasts looking to move up. I’m personally looking forward to see how else the V-Lux 3 can compliment my work. I hear the macro mode is very capable and the video quality is excellent.

- Ming Thein

You can see more of Ming’s work on his website, www.mingthein.com.